Sunday, April 12, 2009

Goth Girl Rides the Metro

I hung out at Harajuku for most of the day and didn't manage to get a single decent shot (those goth kids are surprisingly camera-shy for people who dress up in crazy clothes then go hang out in the spot where tourists go to photograph kids dressed up in crazy clothes...). But then a photo idea formed in my mind, and I headed into the metro station to try and capture some of the lolitas against a motion-blurred train. Unfortunately the few lolitas that did show up managed to stand in places where I couldn't get a clear shot! But this one girl positioned herself well for me. I'm going back there next weekend to experiment more with this concept.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sorry, I've been rubbish blogging! So here's a photo to entertain you until I get my notes in order.

Rowing on the moats of the imperial palace, Tokyo, shot through the backlit cherry blossom (what's left of it, anyway!)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I stood in the appointed spot on the platform (signs hanging from pillars and built into the floor indicate the exact stopping point for each carriage), and the futuristic, elongated streamlined nose of the bullet train arrived on the dot of 3:00. Of course. I really have to admire Japanese efficiency – even the buses run on time, to the minute. It makes the news if the Shinkansen is late. There are three classes of Shinkansen. Nozomi in Japanese means “wish” or “hope” - named because they needed something faster than the existing Hikari (“light” or “ray”) and Kodama (“echo”). The train from Himeji to Hiroshima, the Nozomi super-express, has only one stop: Hiroshima. It skims over Western Honshu at roughly half the speed of light, making the scenery flick past like a high-speed slide show as you barely have time to focus on one scene before it's gone, left far behind. Here a farm, a tractor ploughing the field. There a river trickling under a bridge. Now a cemetery, the square granite pillars of Buddhist gravestones glittering in the afternoon sun. A small town of detached houses. A castle, shining toothpaste white. A gothic cathedral (huh?! But before I even have time for a double-take it's gone). And everywhere sakura: standing with carefully tended topiary in gardens; framed by the torii gateways of Shinto shrines; painting pale pink smudges on spring green hillsides.

A train moving at this speed doesn't have time for natural obstacles. It goes through the hills rather than over or around them. I catch glimpses of small towns as we emerge briefly, only to plunge into the next one.

Trying to keep up with the scenery was giving me a headache, so I plugged in my laptop for the novelty of having a plug socket on a train, and reviewed my Himeji photos. I didn't have long though – the Nozomi covers the 200km to Hiroshima in just an hour.

Arriving at Hiroshima station, I heaved on my backpack, loaded with the excess baggage of my Kyoto shopping sprees. Following the instructions of the nice lady I spoke to at Aster Plaza Youth Home (I called ahead this time – I didn't want a repeat of my arrival in Kyoto!) I took the number 20 bus, missed the stop because I was struggling with my backpack, got off, walked back up the road, found the building, and checked in. The room wasn't the cheapest, but with a nice bed and en-suite bathroom it was definitely the best value I've found in Japan.

It was already late afternoon, so I headed straight out. I'd got two blocks before I realised I'd left my camera's memory card in the computer, so I went back, got the memory card, and started again. The air was warm, the late afternoon light was soothing, and the cherry blossom along the river was in full bloom. Not only that, but there were hardly any people. It couldn't be more of a contrast to the frantic circus of Kyoto's cherry blossom spots, with everyone jostling to position their tripods, zoom lenses and mobile phone cameras between peace V-signs and Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties. I passed a handful of people – cycling home, walking their dogs, or relaxing on benches under the cherry trees – on my way to the Peace Memorial Park.

In the park, the hanami picnics – family, office and even gaijin parties – were well underway on tarpaulins spread beneath the fluttering petals. Despite the reputation of hanami parties' as sake-soaked revelries, these could hardly be described as raucous. Peace pervades the park too strongly to be easily shattered, and the cheerful picnickers just enhanced the sense of calm in the air.

The overwhelming feeling of peacefulness in the park was surprisingly moving – by the time I found myself facing the building now known as the A-Bomb Dome I was almost getting emotional.

The A-bomb Dome stands as a symbol of Hiroshima's infamous past. It was the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall until the bomb, having missed its intended target, a nearby bridge, exploded almost directly above it. The ruins – virtually the only part of pre-war Hiroshima still standing, having escaped demolition when the city was rebuilt – were somewhat controversially declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1996.

Surrounded by the delicate pinky-white sakura, which in Japanese culture is symbolic of the ephemeral nature of life, it seemed especially poignant.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan

I got to check in. The couple ahead of me – a western man around 40, travelling with his Filipina girlfriend Michelle (the size of a 12-year-old with the face of a 14-year old, but was probably 25) – had some sort of problem, which was causing great consternation all round. Operations stalled, and the supervisor turned the sign from “check-in open” to “check-in closed”. Eventually I asked Michelle what was going on. It turned out the flight was overbooked – to the tune of about twenty people, from the size of the queue that had formed behind me. There were seven places available on a Cebu Pacific Airlines flight leaving in the afternoon, but the rest would have to fly the next day. I was assured I'd get on the Cebu Pacific flight, which was fine by me since the bus to El Nido doesn't leave until tomorrow morning anyway, but until I had a ticket and baggage check slip in my hand I couldn't relax.

The airline provided breakfast. We were led to Jollibee's (a homegrown Philippines fast food chain more popular here than McDonald's), and given two portions of fried chicken with a parcel of rice and a pot of gravy.

I needed to get cash – Sara hadn't got any before she got to El Nido, which has no ATMs. Having called the bank to confirm I'm in the Philippines, so they don't lock my card, I found the ATM in the airport, but it didn't accept either Maestro or Mastercard. I asked at the information desk where I could find another, but they said there wasn't one. Well I'm going to have a problem leaving the airport then, I told them, since airport tax apparently isn't included in the ticket price, and to go through to departures you have to pass through a toll booth, for which I didn't have enough cash (it's only 200 pesos – about 3 quid – but I only had 80). They assured me that wouldn't be a problem, as they accept credit cards.

I returned to check-in to see if I could get any further in confirming my place on the Cebu Pacific flight. Another of the passengers, a middle-aged Filipina in purple, decided to take me under her wing. She introduced herself as Bell Desolo, producing from her blouse a press pass that hung on a lanyard around her neck. She tapped the word “PRESS” importantly, and I understood I was meant to comment. “Oh,” I said, “you're press.” She was a reporter, and the young man she was travelling with, whom I'd at first taken for her son, was her photographer. They'd been sent to Puerto Princesa to cover the festival. We were missing the parades as we sat in Manila. Tomorrow the carnival queen will be crowned Miss Puerto Princesa, which I'll also miss as I'll be on the way to El Nido.

I found a corner and sat on the floor with my laptop charging from the mains, reading the Philippines Lonely Planet (which I purchased in electronic form) to pass the time. Bell came to find me when our boarding passes were ready for collection, so I went to collect mine. From the Cebu Pacific check-in opposite she gave me a querying thumbs up, which I returned, and she cheered. I checked in my bag (“you're early,” they said. No kidding, I said), and went back to my corner – only another three hours to kill before boarding.

Bell came to ask if I'd had my free lunch. I said I hadn't, but was just thinking about it. She went with me to the Air Philippines check-in staff and demanded my lunch. I went to sit with her and the other bumped passengers to wait for my lunch (more fried chicken – cold – with rice and weird sweet pickled salad, and a one-inch square of gooey, fudgy chocolate brownie).

I sat next to Hans (that's not his name, but I didn't ask his name so it'll have to do), a German retiree. In answer to my questions he told me he and his Filipina wife live in the “Oonited States”. They come to the Philippines every two years. They were on the waiting list for the Cebu Pacific flight.

2:30 rolled round, and we made our way to Departures. At the airport tax toll booth the cashier told me they don't take credit cards. Bell announced, “I will lend you!” and we were through.

The flight was delayed. The flight from the next gate, going to Bacalod, was also delayed due to late arrival of incoming flight. Sara's flight two days ago was delayed too, because they didn't have an aircraft. “You'd think they'd make sure they had one before letting people book,” she said. I get the feeling that delays are a fact of life in the Philippines.

At 3 o'clock the waitlisters appeared: They'd made it onto the flight. Bell cheered.

Finally we were called to board, and I made my way to the gate with the other passengers: holidaying Filipinos with ipods and shades; a nun in a blue habit, carrying a rucksack; blonde tourists with snorkel masks strapped to their carry-on baggage; a straggly-haired man in a stetson, waistcoat and cowboy boots, holding the hand of a five-year-old boy wearing a coffin shaped rucksack (very emo).

I don't much like flying (well, it's not so much the flying, just the take-off – I don't like take-off because that's when planes explode), but the stories I've heard of Philippine ferries are not encouraging, and anyway Palawan's a full day away by boat.

I had a window seat, and the excitement of looking out over Manila quickly pushed worries of exploding planes out of my mind. Manila is essentially a single-storey city; clusters of skyscrapers in the business district reminded me of the stands of sugar palms that stretch up out of the flat landscape of Cambodian paddy fields. We were over the suburbs, a collection of bright roofs, pink, blue, green, red. Out over the Bay, neatly divided into a patchwork of marine (prawn?) farms. We were perhaps 60 seconds into the flight, and behind me a woman snored loudly, grunting and whistling.

Almost as soon as we'd left Manila behind, we reached the outlying islands of Palawan, small patches of green carpet outlined first in chalk, then turquoise brush strokes, on a background of indigo. Two ships with white trails passed each other in the blue. Looking straight down from the air there's no sense of perspective against the wide blue, so small clouds seem to sit next to the scattered islands.

Larger islands appeared, with mountain ranges like the vacuum-formed plastic scenery of a toy train set, and lagoons edged with mangrove forest.

The plane flew through a formation of small, puffy clouds arranged in rows, like patchy snow on a plough-furrowed field. We were over the Palawan mainland: flat plains from which ripples of mountains rose like wrinkles in a blanket, finished with a scalloped coastline of gracefully arcing bays, each trimmed with a ribbon of pale sand.

More marine farming operations. More mangroves. We descended towards Puerto Princesa, and I could see the procession of pink carnival floats in town. The plane wheeled round over Honda Bay, giving me a view of the port, where miniature people loaded miniature trucks. Then we banked and wheeled round the other way for the approach to the runway. Over the bay, over a ship, over a fishing village of stilt houses with corrugated iron roofs, and onto the runway. At the end of the runway, more sea.

Egrets stalked about in the tall grass either side of the runway. The plane taxied to the terminal building. It reminded me of a leisure centre, which made the yard's (forecourt's? What do you call a airport's parking lot?) painted markings look like a school's dual-marked tennis/netball courts.

Having collected my bag, I allowed myself to be overcharged for a tricycle (the Philippine version of the tuktuk: a motorbike with sidecar) to Duchess Pension, whose grand name doesn't match its YWCA interior, but it's homely enough in a shabby chic kind of way (with more emphasis on shabby than chic), it's only 175 pesos for a single room, and they have wifi.

I walked down the main street (the, er, “city” of Puerto Princesa is based along one main street) under fluttering blue bunting. The parade was finished, and in the dusk carnival floats drove home, minivans bedecked with palm leaf fans and pink paper flowers, loaded with smiling youths. Half a dozen ponies ridden by Filipinos dressed like extras on a spaghetti western (that explains the cowboy on the plane) trotted past in a clatter of hooves. A couple of girls wearing fairy coronets of pink paper blooms giggled in front of me. There were stalls selling candyfloss and small-scale fairground rides. It was like a May Day village fête, just missing a maypole.

I'm no stranger to travelling alone, and in fact in many ways prefer it, but having had company all this time I'd become used to it, and felt suddenly self-conscious and exposed. I found refuge in Shakey's Pizzeria, and took out my notebook. I don't mind eating alone when I have my notebook. It gives me something to do in the absence of conversation, and I fancy it gives me an air of purpose, making me look intelligent, an artiste, a poet, rather than a sad loser dining alone at a corner table. So I scribble away, and in my efforts to look busy note everything from the name of my server (Ron) to the number of pages left in my notebook (“6: I'm going to need a new notebook”).

When I finished eating I pottered back to the guesthouse, where I've been sitting writing ever since. It's now 2:20 in the morning, and I leave at 4:30 to get the bus to El Nido, so you'll excuse me if my grammar is slapdash and my paragraphs disjointed!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Langkawi day 1

[this is a work in progress]

We slept late, because we're lazy. Then we pottered about for a bit, went online to book our flights (we indulgently decided to fly from Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur, and directly on to Manila), then looked into renting a motorbike (there is no public transport on Langkawi and it's far too vast to explore on foot, so the only way of getting around is either by taxi or rented vehicle). But in contrast to Thailand, where they'll happily sit a twelve-year-old on a scooter and wish him luck, civilised Malaysia refused to rent us a motorbike because we don't have the necessary licences. So we rented a car. Sara drove our mean machine, a red Proton, while I navigated with the free tourist map. By “free” read “sponsored”, so it was peppered with red dots and blue dots and green dots labelled with the names of duty-free emporiums (Langkawi was declared a duty free zone in 1987), restaurants, resorts and craft centres – so densely in places that the dots and their labels virtually obliterated the roads.

And so we drove without aim, an island road trip. We stopped to get a drink; I bought a package of satay jellyfish because it sounded interesting. Small dried discs on long toothpick skewers. It tasted of corn syrup.

We muddled our way – eventually – to the Langkawi cable car, and bought two tickets. An attendant whose sole function was to tap people's tickets on the turnstile tapped our tickets on the turnstile, and we joined the queue to be transported up the side of a mountain in a small space pod suspended from creaking wire. Halfway up the mountain I remembered I'm scared of heights. This realisation usually hits me when I'm about to do something like jump out of a plane or zipline out of a 100-foot tree. You'd think I'd learn.

At top station (middle station was closed for works) we were offered a foot massage. Novel, but we declined. Instead we headed to the upper platform of the station, and took in the hazy views over mountains covered in thick green shagpile, and the blue beyond. We posed next to the sign informing us we were however many feet above sea level, then went down to the futuristic boardwalk promenade. [this will make more sense when I add photos]

[there's more to come - I've been too busy having fun to write!]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia

The best you could say about the room was that it's close to the beach. With décor in the style of the Tok's crack den school of interior design, it didn't exactly live up to Lonely Planet's “good value for money” review (I know LP can't help it when guesthouses change their tariffs after being featured, but it's annoying all the same). We politely handed the key back, and asked the man on the effnick jewellery stall to tell us more about his friend's resort with nice rooms for five ringgit more.

We had arrived by speedboat directly from Ko Lipe, where we'd had our passports stamped at the palm-thatched box on the beach which passes for an immigration station. The 45 minute speedboat ride brought us into a swish marina. Arriving in Langkawi is a return to civilisation – it's got real buildings and real tarmac roads with proper road signs, and petrol stations and everything! It doesn't even feel like an island – or at least not the islands we're used to.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Ko Lipe

[working on it]

The label on my bag

A particularly endearing example of "Engrish":


Dress yourself in your own taste
without clinging to traditional ideas
We hope to always
have an open mind


Tomorrow will take care of itself
Dedicated to all nature lovers.
Moist a sail before the wind.
Make sure of this excellence in
tradition for yourself.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Trang to Ko Lipe

The bus left at 10:15 (this didn't come as a surprise; we're used to Thai Time). From La Ngu we took motorbike taxis to the pier at Pak Bara, where we were greeted by a travel agent asking us to “buy ticket sa-peed bort, on-leee wan ow-were”. She hurried us, saying the boat would leave at 1:00. We dashed about, withdrawing money (there are no ATMs on Lipe), buying phone credit, visiting the ladies' room, and getting fruit and water for the journey. Then the departure was put back to 1:30, leaving us with half an hour to kill. We sat at a table and ate our fruit.

The boat left at 2:00 (Thai Time), and took an hour and a half. It slowly clouded over as we travelled, and by the time we arrived it was quite overcast, but even under the pale sky the water sparkled turquoise, and was so clear I found it hard to gauge its depth.

The beach has no pier, so the speedboat moored at a floating platform where we had to pay an exorbitant 50B for a longtail to shuttle us the 20 metres to shore. Grumpy at this extortion, I then got very, very cross when one of the boatmen carelessly set the boat rocking so violently it very nearly catapulted two bags (including mine) into the sea. I continued to sulk until all my bags were on dry land (the boatman having had another go at tipping me out by leaping from one side of the unstable longtail to the other, at precisely the moment I stood up to get out).

This is a tiny island. There are no roads (there are no cars), just one concrete cross-island path connecting the two main beaches, and a few crisscrossing sandy tracks through the jungle leading to the third beach and the local Chao Leh village.

We pottered along the main thoroughfare, past a large, new-looking billboard bearing the hand-wringing inscription in Thai and (sort of) English:

  • Broken Family
  • Hazardous Drug
  • drug addiclang Pusher illegally
  • wasting life and Social danger

The sign stood with absolutely no apparent context, between a fairly inoffensive-looking bungalow establishment and a shop selling sarongs and cold drinks.

Duly warned, we avoided any illegally-looking Pushers of drug addiclang or Social danger, and found a room at Pooh's Bungalows, a jack-of-all-trades resort with a restaurant, barbecue, internet café, dive shop, bakery, bar, and lounge with movie screen and scattered triangle cushions. We got something to eat, wandered along the island's busier beach, then got a massage at a shack on the cross-island path.

Oddbods & Misfits

Next day we trundled to the bus station and located the Satun-bound bus. The conductor indicated on his watch that the bus would leave at 9:45 (it was 9:30). As we ate our breakfast I idly eavesdropped on an English bloke, about 40 years old, talking to a Thai he appeared to have cornered. He spoke stilted, basic Thai, using volume to compensate for fluency in the way of people who have only a passing acquaintance with the language they're speaking but wish to be seen to be Down With The Natives. I speculated on his story. He'd obviously been in Thailand a while: he had the squint and slight sway of long-term alcoholism; he'd managed to pick up a few words of Thai, but certainly didn't have the attitude of an enthusiastic backpacker. He must be an expat.

He kept glancing over. Eventually he spoke, “You guys been travelling long?” Definitely an expat: he's itching to tell us how long he's been in the country. We tell him we left Bangkok a few days ago. “Ah right.” He paused. “I've lived here 17 years.” Seventeen years?! I spoke more Thai than him by the time I'd lived here a month! He used to teach diving on Ko Phi Phi when he first arrived, and like everyone who saw Thailand back in the early days of the tourist industry laments its development. “Haven't been back since. Lived there for a year, but haven't been back.” Now he runs a resort on Ko Lanta.

“You go Ko Lipe?” He spoke pidgin English with an affected Thai accent, both as a means of emphasising his expat status and by way of substitute for actually learning the language. We said that yes, we were going to Lipe. He was on his way there for the first time, to open a resort with his Thai companion, to whom he would occasionally turn and with exaggerated casualness confirm in Thai something he'd just said. As long as what he'd just said involved numbers from 1-100, since that seemed to be about the extent of his vocabulary.

Because Thailand is such an accepting place, it becomes a haven for oddbods and misfits like this, who find refuge here from the harsh judgement of the western world. They tend to congregate around the southern islands and Pattaya, places where the booze and girls are cheap and plentiful. Samet, too, has seen its share of these men (it's usually men) who came, and just stayed. Like Geoff, a Hulk Hogan lookalike who played the harmonica and called himself a mercenary. He was an ex-squaddie (fought in the first Gulf War, he said), and he had “Soldier of Fortune” tattooed on his arm, alongside a faded mermaid. He used to leap about the dancefloor in kung-fu poses. In between playing the harmonica. And Garry, a scrawny, concave-chested man with a severely sloping shoulder and a jerky limp, the results of some dreadful childhood disease. Pointy faced, with a prominent Adam's apple and a high pitched voice, he'd obviously gone through life completely mystified by women, and found the eager attentions of Thai ladies no less bewildering.

These two came to Samet, found a kindred spirit in one another, and became inseparable. And it seemed that everywhere they went, misfortune found them. They were a walking tale of woe – they got robbed, they crashed their motorbike into a fence (Geoff's wounds became infected and for weeks he went around with a swollen foot, hobbling about with a walking stick until he finally laid off the alcohol and let the antibiotics work), and they had constant trouble with women. When they went to Bangkok and got parts as extras in the same movie as I did, a stunt man fell on them. You'd ask Garry how things were going, and his reply would always start with “it's been a nightmare”. They just weren't life's winners.

They were fixtures on Samet for maybe six months, perhaps longer. And then one time I went they weren't there any more. Their departure, pretty much like their presence, went unremarked.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Phang Nga to Trang

We boarded a bus to Trang, where we planned to catch a Satun-bound bus (Lonely Planet assures us of “frequent” departures) onward to Pak Bara, for the boat to Ko Lipe. When we arrived in Trang the conductor notified us and unloaded our luggage. He looked mystified when we tried to ask him where we might get the Satun bus, then put us back on the bus and told us to get out when we were a little further down the road. He pointed across the road where there was a cafe, and told us “taxi”. I said I don't want a taxi, I want a bus. “Yes, yes,” he said, smiling encouragingly, and with that hopped back on the bus and disappeared with it into the night.

Enquiries at the café established that the only bus to Satun would come through at half past midnight, and get to Pak Bara at about three in the morning. We decided to spend the night in Trang. With the help of the café staff we acquired a bargain 250B room for the night. It had a carparking space in front, so should we be seized by a sudden urge to go out in the middle of the night and buy a car, we would have somewhere to put it.

Phang Nga Bay

[I'm still working on it]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Phang Nga

We caught the 9:00 bus out of Khao Lak, and attempted to doze while a succession of doomed love stories (Thai music videos rarely have a happy ending) played out on the TV above our heads, accompanied by the split-octave sounds of Thai country music, and subtitled with the lyrics. We arrived in Phang Nga late in the morning (as the desperately sobbing young man on the karaoke VCD bewailed the loss of his girlfriend to an arranged marriage), and booked an excursion into the bay. Phang Nga bay is famous for its fantastical limestone karst scenery, and in particular one island that was used as the villain's secret hideaway in “The Man with the Golden Gun” and is now generally known as James Bond Island. The trip (with an overnight homestay in a Muslim fishing village) didn't depart until four in the afternoon, so we attempted to find some diversion in the town of Phang Nga in the meantime. First we explored the park. It didn't take long. We had lunch, then went to the internet cafe, and eventually it was time to leave.

A songtaew took us to the pier, and from there we went by longtail boat to Panyi island. The village is built entirely on stilts in the sea, butting up against the gigantic, looming presence of Panyi rock (the “Tsunami Evacuation Route” signs helpfully point up the vertical cliff face). There's very little to do in Panyi village, so we went for a wander around along concrete walkways-on-stilts, stopped by the school-on-stilts (complete with playground-on-stilts), and further along came to the mosque-on-stilts. The village is home to about 2,000 people, most of whom seem to be involved in selling tat to tourists. The walkways are lined with stall after stall selling exactly the same selection of souvenir keyrings, pearl jewellery, shell trinkets and printed batik sarongs, and at each a headscarfed Muslim lady greeted us with “hello-madam-you-lookiiiing”

We resisted, and returned empty-handed to the restaurant, where a somewhat over-friendly local joined us. By way of conversation, he pointed out at the stilt-houses and said “bungalow,” with that uncanny Thai knack for stating the obvious. Then he asked if he could sleep with us. We politely refused, so he invited us to go dancing with him in Phuket. We declined, and having established he was getting nowhere, he lost interest and wandered off.